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He couldn’t repaint images on this Columbia church ceiling. So he found another way

Artist Christian Thee is renovating the artwork of the ceiling about fifty feet above the floor of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in downtown Columbia. The church ceiling is being renovated following water damage. 8/15/18.
Artist Christian Thee is renovating the artwork of the ceiling about fifty feet above the floor of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in downtown Columbia. The church ceiling is being renovated following water damage. 8/15/18. jblake@thestate.com

On a recent Tuesday, about midday, I stooped over on a brick sidewalk to pick up a brass key that had been dropped there. When my fingers reached for the object, I felt nothing except the rough surface of the red brick. In fact, there was no key at all. Only a tiny painting of a key that was so well done it appeared to be the real thing.

I chuckled to myself, and farther up the sidewalk, at the door of his home on Eastshore Drive in Forest Acres, Christian Thee laughed as well. He’s a trompe d’oeil artist and is able to paint things in such a way that they fool the eye, looking three-dimensional when they are not.

I touched the key one more time, just to make sure it wasn’t real. No, it really wasn’t.

“That’s just the beginning,” Thee called out.

Actually, the beginning was earlier in the day when I met Thee inside the Basilica of St. Peter on Assembly Street, where we were surrounded by towering scaffolding. This had been the point of getting together — to talk about his work at the historic downtown church.

For the past three summers, the Basilica has been closed for six-plus weeks for renovations to its interior. Water damage has been the biggest culprit, damaging floors, plaster and paint.

This summer, plaster walls were repaired. Thee, with the help of assistants, has led the repainting of parts of the interior, which he had originally painted 17 years ago. Back then, he created a 225-foot decorative band of design around the walls of the church, called a frieze; a dramatic pattern in the dome of the church, 20 feet in diameter; and, well, a gecko.

Yep, a green lizard, which has become the signature of Thee’s work.

“On practically every job I’ve ever done, I’ve painted a gecko somewhere. I have no idea why. There must be some reason.”

As a boy, he remembered going to the circus in Columbia, where he grew up, and outside the arena, a man was selling live geckos that wore collars and little leashes. Thee’s uncle apparently took exception to the situation, bought all the lizards from the carny and then released them outdoors.

“Maybe that’s where the gecko thing started,” Thee said with a laugh.

Maybe.

What’s for certain is that Thee’s work inside the church dazzles.

The frieze, which wraps around the interior of the church, is a repeating pattern in green and blue, with a yellow scroll.

The pattern in the dome — ochre, green, red and blue — is based upon the image of a Scandinavian tree of life, which Thee discovered while visiting a church in Norway.

Seventeen years ago, Thee climbed the scaffolding himself and, with the help of assistants, painted the design directly onto the ceiling. But moisture found its way into the plaster and the paint peeled away.

This go-round, Thee did his best to stay off the scaffolding while directing the replication of the pattern onto a canvas-like vinyl, which was then attached to the ceiling.

“We’re talking about 40-feet scaffolding,” he said. “I’m getting a little bit beyond that these days.”

But he’s not beyond including his signature image. Thee originally painted the gecko on a column on the right side of the church but it was painted over in 1999. Recently, Thee painted another gecko somewhere else. (No, I won’t say where, but it’s there.)

Thee (it’s a Danish surname) was an Army brat whose father brought the family to Columbia by way of Fort Jackson. Thee’s mother was a “theater bug” who sparked his interest in the stage. He attended Dreher High School and worked behind the scenes at the Town Theatre, creating props and eventually becoming its technical director. He studied art history at the University of South Carolina and then headed for the Big Apple, where he “zeroed in on stage design” at Columbia University. From there, his life took off.

He designed sets for Broadway productions and once had someone call to inquire about what he was doing. “I said, ‘Well, I’m doing Hair right now’ and the person said, ‘But aren’t you doing stage design?’ ”

He created magnificent murals for places like Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal in Atlantic City and Joan Rivers’ apartment foyer in New York City.

“As you travel through life,” he said, “you collect all these images of where you have been and what you have seen.”

Thee’s list of accomplishments in the art world seems endless.

He’s an amazing magician and has a small room in his home called “The Petite Parlor for Prestidigitation,” which is where he performs his many tricks.

“When people say ‘presto!’ it comes from the word prestidigitation which means performing magic,” he said

He is a prolific rider of roller coasters. “I get off of them and I feel so alive.”

But perhaps the real story behind Thee — his work at the Columbia church, on Broadway stages, in his own home — is the element of surprise, the delight that comes when something is discovered for what it is and what it isn’t.

The key on the sidewalk at his Eastshore home.

The bird’s nest Thee painted in a corner of an interior window of his home that seems so real a house wren was once drawn to it.

Or the little gecko, which takes us back to the beginning of this story, the Basilica of St. Peter.

“Overall, the work to restore the basilica has cost the parish approximately $1.2 million to date,” said the Very Rev. Canon Gary Linsky, rector of St. Peter’s.

“Water will always find new ways of causing us challenges, but we’re hoping the worst is behind us. As Pope Francis just recently named St. Peter’s the 85th Minor Basilica in the United States, our efforts to honor our historic patrimony by ensuring the parish is properly maintained is something we feel very strongly about.”

The current renovations should be complete by the end of August, and more projects have been planned for the church, including renovation of the pews.

Speaking of pews, if people find themselves sitting in a particular one, they may look up. Perhaps lost in thought. Perhaps awed by all the work that has been done inside the church.

Or, perhaps, surprised by a little green gecko.

Salley McInerney is a freelance writer who lives in Camden, S.C. She may be reached by emailing salley.mac@gmail.com.

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